Category Archives: Rites of Passage

NTW – Initiation Message I – Life is Hard

A young male gets initiated. So what? Is it really that important? I argued in my last post that there are definite needs for rites of passage to mark the transition from boy to man. One major reason is the lessons that are taught. Beyond those included during the instruction in liminal space, there are several overarching themes that guide the transition process.

The first of these is that life is hard.

Now, for some of you readers, this seems like common sense. Life is hard. But, many of our males are growing up not realizing the full impact of this lesson. The fact that life is hard primarily calls for one thing.

It calls for us to transform pain rather than run from it. In our modern age, it’s easy to run from pain. Medication offers quick fixes to our physical ails and the many distractions of life can keep us from obsessing over our internal, psychic pain. The running from pain comes from a mindset that life should be easy. When we note that life is hard, we turn into our pain, to conquer and transform it. This message gives the call to young men to control their feelings (to tame the hurricane energy, if you will), instead of being controlled by them. If we don’t learn how to transform our pain, we turn it outwards, harming others as well as ourselves in our efforts to overcome/run from it. Richard Rohr (2004) notes that “if we don’t transform our pain, we will transmit it in some form. Take that as an absolute” (p. 37). We must recognize the difficulty of life before we can begin to transform our pain.

How do we teach this? I’m not saying we should overly burden our young men; many of them are carrying far more than we ever could. We shouldn’t create our own ways to teach them that life is hard. But, when they encounter pain, obstacles, issues, we cannot swoop in and solve those issues for them. We must, out of love, let them wrestle with the difficulties in life, with us on the side, coaching and supporting them through the process. Every young male will wrestle and approach these feelings in a different way. We must support them through their struggle.

The best gain we can give our boys through this lesson is to help them overcome their anger, pain, hurt, and frustration. They don’t need to turn these feelings inward (for self-harm) or outward (to harm others); rather, they must learn to overcome this. Through learning that life will be hard, but then understanding how they can approach the hardships in life, we help establish our boys on a path to productive, creative masculinity.

Rohr, R. (2004). Adam’s return: The five promises of male initiation. New York, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company.

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Posted by on August 8, 2015 in Rites of Passage


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Why We Need Rites of Passage

The last year has been spent outlining the phases of a rite of passage as well as the concepts that define the mature masculine and ought to be taught in liminal space. It strikes me, though, that I have barely scratched the surface on the actually need for a rite of passage. Why should we go through all this trouble to transition our boys to men (and our girls to women)? Why is creating the time and space for separation, reflection, and rejoining necessary? It is needed for several key reasons:

1. To mark the separation between boyhood and manhood. The boy-to-men/girl-to-women transition isn’t the only example of a rite of passage. Marriage – marking the leaving behind of all others for one person; certainly two people have a prior relationship and could even have been living together for quite some time, but the ceremony, the rite of passage of marriage guides the transition into a new one-ness. Fraternity/sorority initiation (an area that I work with regularly) marks the transition from prospective member to actual member. These individuals have been associated with the organization, but they need to undergo the change in status that only the initiation can provide. Lastly, the Presidential inauguration provides a public transition. Certainly, the President is the President by election, but the public oath and declaration establish it in the President and all of America’s minds. Just as in each of these examples the rite of passage provides a marked transition to help move beyond a “holding pattern”, so rites of passage for boys and girls allows them to move from the holding pattern of adolescence into their maturity.

2. To help men grasp their masculinity. This is not in an abusive sense; that they need to lay hold of some power granted to them by their maleness. To do so would actually be the antithesis of masculinity. No, rites of passage are needed to help men develop their identity as mature males. Stephenson (2006) notes that “in traditional cultures, identity was not something to be stumbled into but a gift to be given to young people. It was understood that teens need to be guided into their adult identities rather than left to ‘find themselves,’ as the common saying for adults goes” (p. 12). When I look at the struggles men are having with violence, with depression, and with perpetual “Peter Pan-ish-ness”, I see males who are still trying to find themselves. They have not been guided to explore who they are and have been left to figure it out on their own, to their and other’s detriment.

3. To remind us all what is most essential in life. Monica Wilson notes that “rituals reveal values at their deepest level…men express in ritual what moves them most” (in Turner, 2008, p. 6). Stephenson (2006) continues that “rituals remind us of what is most essential and universal in life” (p. 34). All of the virtues taught in liminal space, all of the exploration a male does as he moves through a rite of passage exist to remind him of what is important to him, what he should fight to uphold and protect. The turning inward that happens during a rite of passage, the self-examination, help men when they are faced with trying times. It helps them see the good and bad of their nature and to incorporate the best into their life. And, it is not just the initiate who receives these reminders. Everyone in the community is reminded of this, of the process they went through; everyone in the community can engage in similar self-reflection and remember what the essentials in life are. These rites help the “givers” as much as the “receivers”.

We need rites of passage to mark the transition. They put bounds on adolescence, celebrate the transition, and educate the receiver and the leaders. They aren’t just a ceremony to be completed; they are a hugely transitory experience for all involved, teaching important lessons and establishing a new man. In the future, we will examine these important lessons and their relevance to the process, the mature masculine, and the community.

Stephenson, B. (2006). From boys to men: Spiritual rites of passage in an indulgent age. Park Street Press: Rochester, VT.
Turner, V. (2008). The ritual process: Structure and anti-structure. AldineTransaction: New Brunswick, NJ.

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Posted by on July 25, 2015 in Rites of Passage


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Rites of Passage Roadmap – The New Man

Over the past year or so, I’ve described a journey for young men, focusing on their separation from their childhood, their education in liminal space, and the main lessons that ought to be taught to the boy-becoming-a-man. It’s now time for that man to rejoin his tribe, his family, and his community, not as who he once was, but as the man he now is. All of these components of the rite of passage into the mature masculine are important, but none is more important (or more overlooked) than the public re-integration and celebration of the new man.

Why is this public declaration so important?
Speaking of the importance of initiation, Ray Raphael (1988) notes that “[w]ithout the aid of a formalized rite of passage [which includes the public ritual], it is harder for a youth to be sure that he has actually changed from one state to another. His transition into manhood becomes more difficult – and it generally takes a longer period of time. In the absence of assumed ritual, the delineation between boyhood and manhood becomes obscured” (p. 15). Without the public declaration, we see a male who is capable of manly work (he’s become mentally and physically mature) but who has not yet assumed the responsibilities that come with being a man. When we miss out on the recognition, the initiation, all of the lessons that have been learned, all of the drama surrounding the coming of age, is not fully complete. The new man’s status must be publicly affirmed.

In this public affirmation, assurance of the new manhood occurs. One of the dilemmas of the modern (and postmodern) world is that identity has become very individualized. With multiple definitions of masculinity, coming from the media, friends, and countless other sources, security in one’s masculine identity is tenuous. We very much have a “melting pot of masculinity” which can lead to a young man trying to live up to a variety of expectations for manhood, instead of having his identity affirmed by those individuals who care about him (and whom he cares about).

We see, then, that public re-integration is important for the psyche of the new man. There is something in him that needs to have his new identity publicly affirmed. But, beyond that, this public declaration and acknowledgement does something else: it embraces the power of community for support, encouragement, and accountability. We don’t see this as much in our modern world. Malidoma Somé notes that “[t]he first consequence of westernization has been to make initiation private. In the old days, initiation was a village matter that mobilized the energy of every person” (quoted in Stephenson, 2006, p. 57). When the entire “village” is involved (village standing for those in the young man’s immediate community: family, friends, teachers/mentors, etc.), the seriousness of the manhood he is entering becomes apparent. Declaring publicly in front of the community – “This boy is now a man…and here is what you can expect from him” – gives the community permission to expect more from the new man and gives the new man a standard to live up to, something to strive daily to uphold. Additionally, it serves as a way for all other men in the community to commit or recommit themselves to the expectations of manhood in that community.

What might it look like?
The actually public re-integration/declaration must be tailored to fit the new man and to fit the community. The ceremony can take on a variety of formats. It must contain a few things, though:

– Elders conferring and affirming the new man’s identity. In all of the discussion about education in liminal space, the focus was on the elders sharing with the young male. We find elders playing a major role in the initiation of young males in almost every primitive society. It is a sign of respect, a way to maintain the tribal traditions, and a meeting of male psychological needs (Robert Moore notes that “if you’re a young man and you’re not being admired by an older man, you’re being hurt.”). I can imagine a moment during this ceremony where elders share how the new man has proven himself, what he has attained, and what he will do.

– Acceptance of the new man’s role. After the elders are done conferring this new role, the new man must also accept it. To publicly say “This is who I am and this is how I will behave” puts a level of responsibility and accountability in place. It shows many of the lessons of liminality in action and serves to create a form of verbal contract with the community.

– Articulation of new rights and responsibilities. As a man, we should expect someone to behave differently from a boy. There is something powerful about declaring publicly the rights and responsibilities. Beyond the new man accepting his role, articulation of these rights and responsibilities reminds the community that “this” is how men behave and what you can and should expect from them. There are no excuses anymore; it’s out there.

– New treatment of new man. No longer can childish or childlike behaviors be accepted or excused. No longer can the adults in the community treat the new man like a juvenile. In court terms, he is to be tried like an adult. It will do our new men no good if we initiate them into the mature masculine, then continue to treat them as if they were children. That would take away all their work, all their learning, and cause identity confusion – “Am I a man? Or a boy?”. We must treat the newly initiated differently and, if we are to expect more from them, we must also provide more respect to them.

Imagine the celebration and the pomp and circumstance surrounding a wedding or a graduation focused on affirming a young male’s new manhood and welcoming him back into the community with new rights and responsibilities. This is what is needed to celebrate the new man, the emergence and declaration of the mature masculine. This welcoming will start his life as a true man with the encouragement, accountability, and celebration that it requires.

Raphael, R. (1988). The men from the boys: Rites of passage in male America. University of Nebraska Press.

Stephenson, B. (2006). From boys to men: Spiritual rites of passage in an indulgent age. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press.
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Posted by on June 5, 2015 in Rites of Passage


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Rites of Passage Roadmap – Liminal Space

As I’ve remarked before, our culture is severely lacking in clear rites of passage for our boys becoming men. This has (and has had) several detrimental consequences, chiefest of which might be a failure to fully grasp the responsibilities and requirements of men in a society as boys are taught what a man is by their peers, popular media, or by older males who happen to be in their lives. This type of education is rarely purposeful, prolongs adolescence, and has led many a male astray into that belief that manhood is the opposite of womanhood, when, in reality, manhood is the opposite of boyhood.What is the remedy, then, for this lack of knowledge about the mature masculine, about what a man truly is? I return to my original premise and thought that we must incorporate rites of passage for young males to welcome and initiate them into the realm of the mature masculine. As a short review, rites of passage to manhood generally incorporate a separation from the “old world”, the world of boyhood, a form of training by one or more elders in what the society or culture or family expects from someone wearing the mantle of man, and a celebratory return to the community to demonstrate that they can now expect a more mature level of behavior from the initiate.This post seeks to describe what that middle step might look like, knowing that the definition and expectations of men is quite wide. Additionally, it should be noted that much of what generally takes place in primitive and ancient rites of passage is intended for boys entering roles as hunters/gatherers/warriors; much of the physical abuse and punishment is no longer necessary.To fully examine this idea of liminal instruction, we must first delve into liminal space. In studies of rituals and rites of passage, van Gennep and Turner both offered the idea of liminal space as the middle period during a rite of passage. This period is one of great ambiguity, one that literally means threshold. In liminal space, everything an initiate knows is discarded or thrown on its head so that he might learn the new rites and requirements of his soon-to-come status in the tribe.

What goes on in liminal space?

In one word, education. Education on the various aspects, expectations, responsibilities, and (sometimes) rites of mature men. As I’ve pondered the distinctions between men and boys, they’ve led me to identify several marks of the mature masculine. We’ll deal with each of them in separate later posts, but I believe that they are the core of the education because they exemplify the expectations and responsibilities of mature men. They are: reverence, respect, responsibility, reach, relationship, reflection, and rationality. Each of these marks of the mature masculine serves a greater purpose in a man’s life and in the lives of those around him. How they are taught should be unique to both the initiate and the elders instructing him, but each should be taught as a separate thought, with connections forming between the four as they are learned.
Who teaches???????????????????????????????????????????
Elders. If you missed that, I’ll write it again – elders. Not males 2-3 years older, not peers, not movies or television. Elders, known to and respected by the initiate, must provide the teaching. They’ve been there. As elders, they also will be the first place society will look when a young male acts out. Thus, they should be placed to teach the requirements of the mature masculine as they will be holding that initiate accountable throughout his life. Finally, these are the men who will be “granting” the title of man to the initiate when he finishes the rite of passage. They must be involved.
Why must this learning happen in liminal space?
We’ve already examined the need to separate as the initial phase of the boys-to-men rite of passage. Liminal space serves as an extension of this separation, but also provides for instruction in an effective way. First, because of the separation, the initiate is prepared to learn in a distraction-free zone. This is highly important; given the distractions and mixed messages that are present in the general world, a space where he can learn and internalize the messages of initiation is important. Additionally, liminal space provides a private place for initiates to learn. Not everyone will be ready or able to learn the roles and responsibilities of manhood at the same age or time. Once in liminal space, the initiate knows that he is deemed ready by the elders, a very important discovery for young males transitioning to mature masculinity. Finally, liminal space gives a very different feel from general instruction, lending a more serious and deep tone to the messages. If the messages learned during liminal instruction truly are meant to guide a male into the mature masculine and lead his behaviors the rest of his life, then they should be conveyed in such a serious space.While each of the three steps of the rite of passage are essential, I believe the instruction that occurs in liminal space is what will define a man for his future. What he learns about himself and the roles and responsibilities of men will determine his beliefs and paths as he begins his journey in the land of the mature masculine. We must prepare him properly to navigate this.To providing education in the wild, to crafting liminal space for boys to learn from elder males about the role of men,
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Posted by on April 17, 2013 in Rites of Passage


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Rites of Passage Roadmap – Separation

On a young male’s journey to the mature masculine, he should ideally pass through one, if not more, rites of passage. These rites of passage serve to delineate boyhood from manhood and should provide both a knowledge piece about the new role he will be taking in society and a celebratory piece to welcome him into his new role. In studying rites of passage, I have found that most sociologists and anthropologists mark three steps: separation, liminal space/training, and reintegration.

For young males, who learn very much through experiences, separation is a necessary component of a rite of passage, both symbolically and procedurally. Robert Bly, in his seminal work on the steps boys take to become men (“Iron John”), offers that a boy must separate from both his mother and his father before being able to learn more about himself and the world. In ancient and primitive tribal cultures, this is lived out in their rites of passage for young males.  The beginning of many of these rites, documented in “Betwixt and Between” and by Raphael, van Gennep, and Turner, is a separation from the females of the tribe. Male elders come in and snatch the boys away, oftentimes from the arms of their mothers, and take them to a segregated area, where they will learn in liminal space the secrets, rites/rituals, and responsibilities of the tribal males, before triumphantly returning to the tribe – men.

Why is this separation necessary? Why must the young males be separated from women? And, what can we do with this in our modern era, where there is little time for any prolonged sorts of teaching or rites of passage?

Separation is necessary

Separation is the bridge.

Ancient societies knew that manhood didn’t happen by itself. Older men actively intervened to “welcome the younger men into the ancient, mythologized, instinctive male world” (Bly, 15). Separation creates the space in which this can happen. Think about all of the distractions in the world that a young male faces; he must separate himself from those distractions in order to enter the next phase and learn about the responsibilities of the mature masculine. Separation also serves to delineate the beginning of a young male’s change into a man. We know that males learn through visible, tangible experiences. clearly defining the break between boyhood and manhood is key: this is started by the separation in a rite of passage. Separation is the only way for a male to bridge the gap into liminal space, into the process of learning about the mature masculine.

Male initiation is a male thing

Any psychologist who has studied Freud will share how mothers potentially gain a hold on their son’s psyche during adolescence. It is only natural, but it is something that the ancients and primitive tribes got right in recognizing that part of the separation must include a young male leaving his mother. Mothers are the caretakers but can be smothering as their sons strike out on their own and seek to learn more about their role as men. A male voice is needed, echoed in comments by initiators in tribes that “only men can initiate men, as only women can initiate women” (Bly, 16). The separation from women creates a space wherein responsible males can teach the young males their roles and responsibilities.

Note: I do recognize that there may be objection to older men teaching younger males about the roles/responsibilities of men, particularly around not wanting to enforce gendered behaviors. The older males must be responsible, must recognize that their masculinity is a gift and a privilege, one that cannot and should not be used to dominate or control those around them. Rather, the roles/responsibilities of men revolve around the DNA of masculinity – respect, reverence, responsibility, and reach. These are what must be taught, combined with a healthy understanding of the power that a male has and how he can responsibly use it.

Further note: Gordon Dalbey offers that “you don’t become a man simply by rejecting and breaking from your mother. The larger masculine – the father and the community of men – must be reckoned with, harkened unto, as well. Otherwise, an edge of resentment, even hostility, remains and focuses eventually on women” (Dalbey 2, 69-70).

Making time

We must make time for this if it is to have any affect. Young males are kept busy, but a weekend, scheduled properly, is more than enough time to separate, teach, and provide a celebratory welcome. Failing to take this time is more damaging than a missed weekend; missing the separation and the rite of passage means missing an entire life.

I believe it’s fitting to close with a modern example of what the separation could look like. In a modern vision of initiation, Gordon Dalbey, imagines this separation through a Christian lens in “Healing the Masculine Soul”:

One evening, after dinner, Dad gets up, mentioning casually that he’s going out for a few minutes. Outside, he drives to the church, where he’s met by the male elders and the other fathers of boys to be initiated. The men gather in the sanctuary to worship and rededicate their own manhood to God, praying that together they might be a fitting channel for the Father’s Spirit of manhood to each boy. …

All the men then drive together to the first boy’s house, and while a male pastor approaches the door, the men stand on the front lawn, singing old hymns from our Christian heritage.

The doorbell rings. The mother opens the door. Surprised to see the pastor and the men outside singing, she stands there, uncertain.

“We’ve come for Dan,” the pastor says.

“But … but what for?” she asks. “I didn’t know there was a youth group event tonight…”

“This is not for the youth group,” the pastor explains. “This is for the men.”

“Well, I … I don’t know,” the mother says, glancing uneasily at the men singing out front. “Actually, Danny’s father’s not home just now, so you’ll have to wait until…”

“What’s all that singing outside?” the boy calls out from the living room. “What’s going on?” He comes to the door, beside his mother. Seeing the men out front, the boy draws up, tense.

“We want you to come with us tonight, Dan,” the pastor tells him.

“Dan!” his father calls out from the group. …

“Dad!” the boy calls – still uneasy, but encouraged to see his father there.

“Come on out, Dan!” his father shouts. “Come out with us!”

The boy looks up at the minister, who nods – and waits. “But it’s cold outside,” the mother protests. “And Danny hasn’t finished his dessert…”

“I appreciate your concern,” the pastor says, then, turning to the boy, “You can go and get your coat. Your dad has already put together the clothes you’ll be needing.”

The boy hesitates, licking a trace of apple pie from his lips. “Come on, Dan!” his father shouts. “Let’s go!”

A pause… then, all at once, the boy spins on his heels and dashes to his bedroom, comes running back grasping his coat. As he steps out the front door, the pastor nods graciously to the mother and puts an arm around the boy. The two head out onto the lawn as a mighty chorus arises. [The group moves to call the next boy out.] (Dalbey, 37-40)

We must call our boys out; they must separate from their current boyhood if they are ever to become men. As men, this is our responsibility.

To separation, from a boyish past and future, and to a responsible mature masculinity.

Bly, R. (2004). Iron John: A book about men. Da Capo Press.
Dalbey, G. (2003). Healing the masculine soul: How God restores men to real manhood. Thomas Nelson, Inc.
Dalbey, G. (2011). Sons of the father: Healing the father-would in men today. Civitas Press.
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Posted by on April 5, 2013 in Rites of Passage


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Rites of Passage Roadmap – Introduction

There are a few things that are lacking from our modern society today that have existed and helped males realize and take ownership of their place as men in society. The most visible of these is the lack of a distinct rite of passage for boys to become men. In their book “Wild Things”, Stephen James and David Thomas (2009) tell us that “we cannot emphasize enough how significant these rites and rituals are in the lives of boys. As experiential, spatial, and tactile learners, boys need events and ceremonies to help mark significant moments and transitions in their lives.” (p. 275) A male needs to know when he has become a man, but more than that, he must know what rights, responsibilities, and requirements he has as a man that he may not have had as a boy.

This is where the rite of passage comes in. The rite of passage serves multiple purposes:

  • It provides a distinct mark of separation from one stage of life into another.
  • It instructs those going through it in their responsibilities in the new stage as well as the expectations those already in that stage of life have for them.
  • It offers a celebration of the new stage of life for the participant and the providers.

Each of these purposes is extremely important. David Gilmore (1990), in examining cultural rites of passage for men, offers that “real manhood is different from simple anatomical maleness, that it is not a natural condition that comes about spontaneously through biological maturation but rather is a precarious or artificial state that boys must win against powerful odds” (p. 11). This leads to one of my personal favorite expressions – there is no “bam! You’re a man” moment that happens naturally. We must provide this distinct mark of separation, one that is meaningful for its participants. Failing to do so, I and many psychiatrists believe, causes males to be stuck in a perpetual state of boyishness, never claiming their responsibility as mature men, or to revert back to boyish ways, also known as the mid-life crisis.

Each rite of passage that I’ve examined offers instruction for its participants in the traditions of the culture. Many of these rites of passage come from primitive cultures, so the belief system/religion and gender roles and expectations are fairly rigid. Thus, it becomes essential for the older men to initiate the young males into the secrets of the culture that only the males know (regarding religion, mystical beliefs, and other ceremonies performed by the culture). We don’t have such straightforward educational needs in our melting pot of society, but there are certain expectations and responsibilities that come with the mature masculine that are not expected of boys. We must provide this instruction so that 1) males know what is expected of them as men (more to come on this in future posts) and 2) males are able to exist, interact, and thrive with mature adults, both males and females.

Finally, the rite of passage provides a celebration of new life. I see many males in my work afraid to take full hold of the mature masculine in part because it is not celebrated, but rather seen as a burden, as a set of responsibilities without much carefree life they live currently. Providing the celebration of this new phase gives them something to look forward to. It allows them to see that just because they are embracing the mature masculine and taking responsibility for their life and actions (one aspect of the mature masculine) does not mean that their life is forever ruined. Additionally, this celebration allows for everyone to see that ______ is indeed now a man, and you can celebrate with him, encourage him in his masculinity, and know what you can expect from him as a mature male.

What do rites of passage look like and how can we re-incorporate them into our society? In the posts that follow, I will explore the three most common steps of rites of passage – separation, liminal space, and reintegration – and offer ideas on how these might look in a modern society and how concerned males and females might work to provide safe rites of passage for younger males.

To providing positive rites of passage and safe, impactful initiations into the mature masculine for young males,

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Posted by on March 22, 2013 in Rites of Passage


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Iron John – An Initiation – Wrapping Up

Over the past months, we’ve explored the journey of Iron John and how the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale can be applied to the lives of boys seeking to transition into manhood. Thanks to the work of Robert Bly, we’ve watched the young prince bond with his mother and father, then separate from them. He was carried off by Iron John to the woods and was mentored there, finding a bridge to his greatness. As he grew and moved on, he learned to control his hurricane energy. His journey culminates in his marriage to the queen, a symbol of a young man embracing his “softer” side.

I think it is only fitting, as I move on from this short investigation, to offer some reflection on the journey all boys must take as they grow up.

This journey is not a solo endeavor.

As we see through the young boy’s journey to manhood, he is rarely alone as he grows up. He has his parents first, then his mentor in Iron John. Even when he is sent away from the forest, Iron John still serves as a protector, stepping in if the prince needs him. So, too, in the lives on young boys today, their journey cannot be one of solitude. There are times when a boy must step out on his own, but he cannot be left to his own devices to develop his masculinity. If left without parents or the key mentor(s), boys turn to one another for initiation, the blind leading the blind on the road to a false masculinity. Those who are parents or respected elders in boys’ lives must step up into the role of mentor and guide the boys along their journey. Even without offering specific guidance, which I would highly encourage, parents and elders serve as models for what boys can hope to become. Giving a picture of the future is extremely important, especially in a long process such as this.

Side note on solitude.

There is a time in a boy’s life when he does need to strike out on his own and not be dependent on others for his development. I believe this comes between the mentor’s arrival and the apprenticeship to the hurricane energy, and possibly as a part of the latter. In processing through this fairy tale, I saw many similarities between it and the monomyth that Joseph Campbell offers as part of the hero’s journey. There is a portion of the hero’s journey where the hero steps out on his own, then returns. (For more information and reading on the hero’s journey, I highly recommend my friend Chad Ellsworth’s blog on the subject –

All of the steps are important.

While you may not agree that the steps follow this progression or must happen independently of one another, they are all important to the growth and development of manhood. There are adult males who still rely on their mothers for care, comfort, and advice. I’m not disparaging this, however, as a male matures, he must strike a balance in this area and others. Thus, the first two stages are extremely important, especially in a society where at college-age or closely after, children move away from home and strike out on their own. The male mentor is, to me, the most important phase. He provides a different perspective than what a boy has grown up with and gives further encouragement to the development of a boy’s masculinity. Skipping any of these steps will yield a separated man, incomplete and acting as such.

Reflection is crucial.

As I’ve been pondering these stages, I have recognized the great need for reflection, especially in the latter stages (stages 3-5). As a boy grows up, he must begin to look inwardly, at his strengths and weaknesses. The male mentor helps with this, as he shows the boy what he can become and helps him begin building the bridge to that greatness. The reflection is especially important as the boy tames the hurricane energy and marries the queen. In order to tame one’s aggressive, “masculine” energies, you must first understand what they are. It’s akin to identifying your nature and bad habits and seeking to take hold of them. In the same way, discovering and cultivating the “feminine” virtues requires reflection and contemplation on your action and attitudes. It wasn’t until I began reflecting on my life and how I had grown and changed, that I realized where I still had improvement to make and what aspects of my character had developed and were continuing to develop. Reflection gives direction, but it also gives hope and pride when you see where you were and are now.

You are never done.

Even after going through all five stages, you are not done. Just as real leaders produce other leaders, real men produce other real men. Why would you take a gift that you have and keep it to yourself. As a mature man, you have the honor, privilege, and responsibility to serve as a mentor to boys as they develop. If you are blessed with sons, you have even more responsibility to mentor and guide them in their growth. Additionally, you cannot sit back and allow manhood to be corrupted by those boys who seek machismo without actual growth and development. Finally, you must fight against the injustices that are perpetrated by those false men.

Wrapping up this series, if there is one idea I would leave above all, it is that this is a long, hard journey. You cannot accomplish it alone, but there are many who would be willing to help. Seek out mentors. Serve as mentors. Be good fathers, mothers, and guides. If you’re ready, your journey can start today. My hope is that understanding the route you have to take will make the transition from boyhood to manhood just a little easier. That understanding is what “Navigating the Wild” is all about.

To developing strong men who love, inspire, and foster deep masculinity in others,


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Posted by on December 30, 2012 in Rites of Passage


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Iron John – An Initiation – Marriage to the Queen


As we near the end of our young fellow’s journey to being a man, I feel it is only proper to look back at how far he has come thus far. After his birth, he became both physically and psychologically connected to his mother. If he was lucky, he also had that opportunity with his father, and if very lucky, it actually occurred. Then came the difficult part, separating from parents he loved so much and striking out into the world, relying on them for support, but not as the controllers in his life. His parents have moved from the “spread-the-peanut-butter-on-the-bread Mother/Father role to trusted consultant” (Okun, VoiceMale, Summer 2012). As his parents were shifting roles, a new person entered his life, the male mentor. This man became a trusted friend, ally, and champion for our young fellow, helping him to see his potential and then building a bridge to reach it. Possibly there were more than one, and possibly they weren’t all male; the truth of the matter is that our young fellow needs that bridge builder to help him connect with his potential. Along this path, he discovered that he has power. He learned of his emotions and tendency towards a natural energy, and learned how to harness that hurricane force so that his “masculine energies” might not harm others, but rather be used for good.

The Final Steps

Now he approaches that final step in the journey describe by Robert Bly in his analysis of Iron John. He “marries the queen”. It is interesting that in Robert Bly’s book, this aspect of the journey does not get much mention. He touches on it briefly, but does not expound on it, leaving us to determine what it means. If we view the arrival of the hurricane energy to be the taming of the traditional masculine emotions, then, I believe, we can only conclude that marriage to the queen is the acknowledgment and embracing of those traditionally feminine virtues, emotions, and ideals.

This stage is the time when the young fellow comes into touch with his feminine side, when he sees patience, love, and tenderness not as things that weaken an individual, but things that strengthen and add depth to life and character. In this stage, our fellow almost seems to slow down, to begin to reflect on life, and to somewhat soften his approach to life. The young man who is marrying himself to the queen no longer sees things as masculine or feminine, but rather incorporates the best of all worlds and emotions into his life and habits. This is a man who is truly in touch with his emotions, not just controlling them but also allowing them to be evident. Finally, this is a man who learns how to go deeper into himself and in relationships with others, to be vulnerable and open about his life and his struggles.

In my work with fraternity men on a college campus, I have seen how difficult this final stage is. We still have a strict male code that attempts to define what masculinity is. We still have struggles to “be men”, as Dr. Pepper offers its 10 drink for MEN, Dial makes soap for “men, for manly, manly men”, and Dockers tells men to “wear the pants” again. If we look at what society says, it offers a very one-sided view of what being a man is, that of running, hunting, fighting, going all-out and never crying. And, thus, our boys are told how to be good at being a man. Is this enough?

In an interview with the Good Men Project, Jack Donovan discusses the difference between being a good man and being good at being a man. The latter is a tactical move, one sure to help men advance in society; the former, a way that society enslaves men into behaving a certain way. I see the former slightly differently, not that it enslaves a man, but that it gives a man a goal to reach. Yes, it is a fulfillment of a social contract, but we all ought to treat one another with love and respect. That is what marriage to the queen is all about: coming full circle from being good at being a man (as society would define it) to being a good man (defined by the social contract that we have). 

The man who has “married the queen” is no longer concerned with being good at being a man. Rather, he seeks to be a good man. This throws out gender stereotypes, allows him to be sympathetic, to laugh and cry along with the highs and lows in life, and prompts a more dimensional version of personhood, one in touch with all his emotions and all his abilities. A true man is never a man until he realizes all aspects of himself.

Always Continued

As our young fellow concludes his path, we must recognize that this journey is never finished. He may have realized his potential, harnessed his energies, and brought forth some that he never knew he had, but he still needs to continue to develop and reflect. Men don’t sit in silence. They don’t merely reach a point and stay there. Men are ever growing, ever reflecting, ever revisiting these final three steps, speaking with their mentors, developing and harnessing their energy for good, and learning to be more compassionate, loving, and respectful men. Only then can they truly be that: Men.

To guiding others along the journey to manhood,


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Posted by on December 18, 2012 in Rites of Passage


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Iron John – An Initiation – Taming the Hurricane Energy

In his journey thus far, our boy has bonded to and separated from his mother and his father and found one, and possibly more, male mentors to help him bridge the path to greatness. By my personal estimation, chronologically at this point, this boy is most likely no younger than 23 (the average age of college graduation in the US), although he may have accomplished the first three components more quickly given a focused upbringing and parents that did provide for several rites of passage.

Now we approach the final two phases, the first of which involves learning and harnessing those virtues and aspects we commonly associate with men and masculinity. (Note: I recognize that all virtues can be held by either gender. I am merely attempting to provide a starting point for this conversation by outlining those virtues commonly thought to be masculine, as they are the ideas and virtues behind and fueling the hurricane energy we will speak about momentarily.)

Richard Rohr and Joseph Martos list out virtues commonly associated with femininity and then those associated with masculinity in “The Wild Man’s Journey”. They (1996) list virtues such as “self-possession, leadership, truthfulness, decisiveness, responsibility, closure, intelligence, inner authority, challenge, courage, and risk taking” (p. 132) as those thought to be more masculine based. Feminine virtues are “humility, obedience, openness, receptivity, trust, forgiveness, patience, and long-suffering” (p. 132). 

I feel comfortable believing that there is a difference in how men and women express emotions, given the research done into male and female emotions, summarized by Leslie Brody (2001) in her tome “Gender, Emotion, and the Family”. She states that 

     “a brief overview indicates that relative to men, women verbalize or use facial expressions to communicate more intense self-conscious emotions, such as sadness, embarrassment, and shame; emotions connoting vulnerability, such as fear and hurt; positive emotions, such as warmth, affection, and joy; and empathic feelings, such as distress. Only the emotions of contempt, pride, guilt, and loneliness are sometimes, but not always, expressed more intensely in words by men than by women. … Men express anger with more aggression and physical reactivity than women do.” (p. 79)

With that background, we pause to consider the next phase of the journey to masculinity described by Robert Bly. This phase is called apprenticeship to the hurricane energy. Previously, we saw the male mentor arrive and help the young boy understand how he can build a bridge to his greatness using his strengths and abilities. Now, the male mentor (the same, or another) continues to help the boy grow through helping him to subdue or bring forth (in a controlled manner) those more aggressive traits and virtues he may have. In their book, “King Warrior Magician Lover”, Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette (1991) paint a picture of the Jungian archetype I most closely associate with this hurricane energy: that of the Warrior. The Warrior demonstrates appropriate aggressiveness. He is a man of decisive action, “concerned with skill, power, and accuracy, and with control, both inner and outer, psychological and physical” (Moore & Gillette, 1991, p. 83). The Warrior seeks positive and purposive construction.

Unfortunately, if this apprenticeship to the hurricane energy, this teaching of how to handle the more masculine virtues, is not undertaken, a boy runs the chance of falling to either side of the Jungian archetype, into the areas of either the sadist or the masochist. Someone that does not know how to harness his inner energy will either become abusive to himself or to others in his life. Thus, we must teach boys how to control their aggressive nature, not to beat it out of them, but to enable it to be presented as a positive factor in a boy’s life and in the lives of others.

What does this look like in the relationship with the male mentor?

The male mentor must first be in touch with his own hurricane energy. If he does not have self-control (which is ultimately at the root of this phase), he will be unable to teach his protege how to have self-control. I personally learned self-control through seeing the results of my actions on other people, as well as through the continued questioning of what use my anger and aggression might have in a given situation. The goal here is not to eliminate the Warrior inside; it is to harness its energy to be used positively. There are many far older and wiser than I who have tackled this, and I do believe that this patience and contemplative spirit come with age as well as with training. Still, the more we speak with younger males about the results of their actions or proposed actions and the more we allow for positive release of the hurricane energy, the more we allow for their development into true Warriors, not merely the hurtful shadows of the Warrior.

As Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette (1991) remark, “if we are accessing the Warrior appropriately, we will be energetic, decisive, courageous, enduring, persevering, and loyal to some greater good beyond our own personal gain” (p. 95). These are the qualities of a true man and should be the end result of this fourth step, the apprenticeship to the hurricane energy.

To using our hurricane and warrior energy to positively construct and serve those around us,


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Posted by on December 11, 2012 in Rites of Passage


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Iron John – An Initiation – Male Mentor Arrives

As our young boy continues his journey to becoming a man, he enters the third phase that Robert Bly describes in his book “Iron John”. Previously we’ve discussed the bonding to and separation from the mother and bonding to and separation from the father. Now we come to what I believe to be the most important phase of the journey: the arrival of the male mentor.

In the fairy tale, Iron John serves as the male mentor for the boy. He begins this process somewhat at the boy’s request, carrying him away from the castle after the boy frees him. In this, Iron John also serves to help the boy separate from both his mother and his father. Once in the forest, Iron John gives the boy trials to undertake, focused on developing discipline for him. When the boy fails the trials, in part due to wounds he received in the past (the fairy tale demonstrates these as physical wounds, a sore finger; Robert Bly and I agree that most likely the wounds are metaphors for psychological wounds), Iron John sends him on his way, but promises to always be there if the boy needs help.

From this portion, we see the primary characteristics of a mentor. I will outline those, then describe my own experience with my male mentor which, I hope, will demonstrate the need. Finally, I will give some advice to those serving as mentors and to those who are being mentored.

Although seemingly gruff, Iron John is a stellar mentor for this boy. He helps him to separate from his parents, something that before he arrived was seemingly impossible. As a boy matures, he is always looking for a hero, for a role model. This is why boys idolize sports heroes, military men, and firefighters, or in the negative realm, gangsters, criminals. They are looking for someone to be their hero. Initially, this is their parents, but as they grow up, they need additional older external influences in their lives to help them develop into the man they will be. 

This is why mentors are so important. If older men do not step in, younger men are left to initiate them, and as Robert Bly states (and I have repeated many times), “manhood doesn’t happen by itself … the active intervention of older men means that older men welcome the younger man into the ancient, mythologized, instinctive male world” (p. 15). Geoffrey Canada, in his book “Reaching Up for Manhood”, describes what can happen when young boys are left without older male figures. They turn to those that are a few years older than them for initiation and approval, something that those boys are also incapable of providing, thus wrecking the developmental process. 

How many mentors should a boy have? Ideally, they will have more than one, because as my mentor once told me “Mentors reproduce their weaknesses in those they are mentoring”. To be well-rounded, boys need more than just one mentor in their life.

So, Iron John provides a picture of the additional male role model, who helps the boy see beyond his parent’s home. Additionally, he gives the boy a sense of mission and purpose, assigning him a task to complete. When the boy fails, Iron John gives him two more chances. Finally, Iron John recognizes that the boy needs to go outside of the safety of the forest into the real world to make his own way. A good mentor does this. He challenges his protege (I’m not a fan of the word mentee), provides him with the tools necessary for success, then allows him to go to make his own way. Additionally, he recognizes when his primary work is complete and doesn’t cling to his protege. But, and this is important, the mentor is always there, always available for advice and help. Throughout the remainder of the story, we see Iron John there, ready to help and sharing in the boy’s triumphs and trials. A good mentor is always there.


Kevin (left) and me (right) at a conference

In my own life, I’ve been privileged enough to have a fantastic mentor – Kevin. I first met Kevin as a young undergraduate, who, if you asked the people around me, cared for only myself and was certainly not a mature man. Over the last five years, Kevin mentored and discipled me, teaching me how to be a strong Christian man, an honest and hard-working employee, and a dedicated and loving husband. Our relationship began with him pushing and challenging me; then, as I learned and grew, we both sharpened one another. I referenced in the Separation from the Mother posting how Kevin helped me to established an adult relationship with my mother. He still to this day provides me with counsel and advice, and even though we’re not meeting on a weekly basis or even in the same area, I know that he is always there if I need him. Without Kevin, I would have let other 20-22 year old males define what it means to be a man for me, something they had no experience in or knowledge of.

In his book, “The Element”, Dr. Ken Robinson, one of the world’s leading thinkers on creativity and education, describes four roles of the mentor:

Recognition – Mentors identify skills that others haven’t seen in their proteges.

Encouragement – “Mentors lead us to believe that we can achieve something that seemed improbable or impossible to us before we met them” (pp. 181-182).

Facilitating – Mentors help us to grow those skills they helped us find.

Stretching – Mentors help us to not settle, but to always push our limits.

I know Kevin was not a 100% perfect mentor; there is only one of those who has ever lived. However, from his example, I have some suggestions for older men who are serving (or hopefully begin serving) as mentors:

Know yourself. You need to know your weaknesses and strengths. This means that you need to be reflecting as much, if not more than, your protege. If you’re not able to help your protege grow in an area, know someone that can. Don’t be afraid to ask for outside help.

Know your protege. You would not believe how helpful it was to have Kevin be able to look deeper than what I was saying and identify where my thoughts and feelings were truly coming from. He saved me a lot of struggle and embarrassment by pointing out the root of some issues I was having.

Never stop improving. You can’t settle and rest on what you’ve got. If you stop learning and reflecting, your protege can only grow so much.

Be selective. Just because someone approaches you as a mentor, does not mean that you have to accept. You need to delve into the rationale behind it and make sure that you are the most beneficial person for them. If you don’t have time, or don’t share similar interests (remember, men relate shoulder to shoulder, through activities), then help them find someone who is better suited for them.

Be available. This means that if you are a mature man who has come into his own, please, please mentor someone. Additionally, if you’re going to do it, be there for them, not just when it’s convenient for you. Mentoring takes time and effort.

For those boys who are looking for that mentor, I have four recommendations:

Be selective. Just as mentors should be selective, so should you. Find a man whom you respect and whom you have seen doing good in his workplace, his home, and his community.

Be FAT. Kevin always described the best protege as FAT: Faithful, Available, Teachable. Show up when you say you will; come ready to learn and engage; and be open to knowledge. If you can’t be FAT, then you’re not using your time or your mentor’s time well.

Engage for the long run. Yes, some mentors may come and go, but you need a male mentor who will be a role model and guide for you for a long time. You can’t jump from mentor to mentor, because you’ll have to establish that relationship all over again each time.

Be honest. If you are going to lie to your mentor, that doesn’t help you. For him to honestly guide you into masculinity, he needs to know your struggles, your interests, what you wish to become. And if you don’t know all of these, tell him. More than likely, he can help.

A boy needs to learn how to be a man from multiple sources. His dad and mom are just two of these, and once he moves out from under their roof, he needs a mentor to guide him. If you are someone without a positive mentor in your life, I encourage you to find one. If you’re having trouble, I would be happy to help how I can. And, if you are a mature man (respectful, reverent, and responsible), you owe it to those who have mentored you and to all those who need men in their lives to be mentors.

To men stepping up, reaching over to younger men, and helping them up into masculinity,


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Posted by on December 4, 2012 in Rites of Passage


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